Everybody warned me not to go through Death Valley in summer, but nobody said a word about Las Vegas! So I find myself in the stop-and-go traffic on I-15, as I try to get out of the city. The thermometer on the bike shows exactly 105 degrees. Underneath my riding suit and helmet, it feels much hotter than that. Of course I'll go through Death Valley, the lowest and supposedly hottest point of the United States. It can't be worse than Las Vegas, and there's probably no stop-and-go in the valley. Death Valley is only a short leg on my way to San Francisco, a route some prospectors took 160 years ago. They were listening to the call of the Gold Rush in California.
Of course I’ll go through Death Valley, the lowest and supposedly hottest point of the United States. It can’t be worse than Las Vegas, and there’s probably no stop-and-go in the valley. Death Valley is only a short leg on my way to San Francisco, a route some prospectors took 160 years ago. They were listening to the call of the Gold Rush in California.
I’m listening to the hard working fan of my KTM as I finally turn onto Highway 160, which brings me out of the city and over the 5,502-feet high Mountain Springs Summit. From here a four-lane highway leads through the desert to a strange town, called Pahrump. With it’s flashy casinos, it appears like a small-town copy of Las Vegas. I fill up all my petrol, food, and water resources before I finally swap civilization for solitude.
In the middle of the desert, a couple of houses in disrepair gather around a theatre. This is one of those places you only find out west where the effort of a pioneer formed something special. The city-limits sign of Death Valley Junction reports a population of 4. One of them is Marta Becket, a former Broadway dancer. On a vacation in 1967 she found this deserted colonial-style adobe building, which once was used by a mining company. By then it had been a store, a hotel, a dorm and the company’s headquarters. One part of the building was formerly used as a community center for dances, church services, movies, funerals and town meetings. In 1967 it became Marta Becket’s realization of a dream. She rented the place, renovated it, and on February, 10, 1968, she gave her first performance in front of an audience of 12 people. From then on the theatre opened three times a week for many years – as it still does, in the cooler months.
Motorcycle & Gear
It feels a bit risky leaving this outpost and taking the road towards the treacherous valley. In 1849, the California Gold Rush lured a party of wagons seeking a shortcut. They didn’t know what lay in front of them. Only one wagon made it out. When one of the survivors turned around and said “Goodbye Death Valley,” the name stuck.
Death Valley Before Eyes
After a moderate ascent over a stony plain the road starts to drop. An almost black mountain range west of me is lit by the afternoon sunlight. The area is nice, as I had expected. But so far I only see a glimpse of the overall beauty. Shortly after the park boundary, a sign “Dantes View” invites me for a detour. The road climbs up again for 13 miles into the Amargosa Range. Finally, some tight switchbacks bring me to one of the most stunning views imaginable. I’m standing at a 5,475-foot altitude and looking down at the Badwater Basin, which is 282-feet below sea level and the lowest point in the US. The whole Death Valley and the surrounding mountains lie before my eyes, a magical moment for sure. I get out my picnic supplies and sit down to watch the sun set. The opposite Panamint Range is lit by the last light, while the sky changes from orange to dark lilac.
The next morning I’m up here again. The sunrise is very different compared to the sunset, as the mountains are lit from a totally different angle. The spectacle more than compensates for the early hour. While watching the desert awaken, I remember the words of a local advising to go early through the valley. So I start the long descent towards the bottom. Signs show how elevation drops. As I rush down, I feel the temperatures rising, although I have the feeling that some of it might be my anticipation too. A look at the thermo reveals only 94 degrees. “Still time for a little detour” I think to myself. I want to know how the lowest point in North America would look from close up. As I approach Badwater, it’s not difficult to guess where the name came from. The valley has no outlet. What little water there is collects here at its lowest point well below sea level. The surrounding mountains are full of minerals, which results in very salty, “bad” water. Actually it has up to five times the salt content of ocean water.
Rapidly, the sun gets stronger as it climbs the sky. Mercilessly, it shines down on the shadowless land. Time to turn around and head north towards the exit. But very soon the next detour lures me just by its name: “Artists Drive.” The single one-way-road turns out to be a great playground for motorcycles. Tight corners follow little colorful canyons. At “Artists Palette,” the colors reach their peak. Apart from the ever-present bright yellow and red, even nuances of blue dot the mountain. Back on the main road the views reach over the wide and flat ground of the bottom of the valley, which is flickering in the heat. But in the distance seems to be some green. As I get closer, it becomes obvious that I wasn’t deceived by a mirage. Death Valley is surprisingly alive at Furnace Creek. A ranch with high palm trees and a small Shoshone reservation defy the heat. There’s even a post office here, perfectly located at 328 Greenland Ave. The air doesn’t exactly feel green or alive though, as I’m sweltering at 112 degrees. Half an hour later, I’m at the exit, Stovepipe Wells, which consists of a motel and a petrol station. From here the road steadily climbs upwards for 20 miles. It’s good fun because the road just follows the surface of the ground, which has a lot of dips. A few times the bike almost jumps.